November 2, 2010

Against Presumption and Pelagianism

All Souls' Day, or as we now call it in English, the Commemoration of the All the Faithful Departed, is the Church's great day of prayer for the dead. The Office of the Dead is prayed in the Liturgy of the Hours, and all priests have the privilege of offering the three traditional Masses according to the apostolic constitution Incruentum altaris sacrificium of Benedict XV. One Mass may be offered for a particular intention, but the second and third have to be offered for all the faithful departed and for the intentions of the Pope, respectively.

To pray for the dead at all is to affirm the Church's doctrine of purgatory, or at least something akin to it. For, if one of the faithful departed finds himself already among the saints in heaven enjoying the perfectly delightful and satisfying vision of God, what sense could it make to pray for such a one? It is rather he who should be praying for us. And if the dead find themselves--God forbid--in hell, there is no point praying for them anyway.

Thus, to pray for the dead presumes some kind of continuing journey after our earthly death, some kind of sense in which the dead can still be 'on the way' to God. The Church expresses this in the doctrine of Purgatory. So often Purgatory is looked upon as a gloomy and morbid concept, but the case is precisely the opposite. Purgatory is an exceedingly positive and encouraging doctrine, and an expression of the near, but not quite overwhelming, goodness and gentleness of God.

To explore this a little, we can see how Purgatory is a good corrective against two dangerous errors of our time: Presumption, on the one hand, and a kind of Pelagian deism on the other.

I offered about seventy funeral Masses in my three years as a parish priest. The typical (expressed) attitude of the mourners was that the deceased was already at peace in Heaven. Now I don't claim that this a strictly theological assertion; much of it is a justifiable attempt to find some comfort in an expressed faith in God. But, on the other hand, sometimes I felt a little presumption in all of it and a failure to accept the possibility that the deceased might not have been ready for the brilliance of heaven and perhaps could use of our prayers wherever he found himself on the continuing journey. Against the presumption of Heaven (not to mention the fear of hell), Purgatory stands as an expression of the mercy and gentleness of God. Even if we have not succeeded in surrendering to the grace to become saints in this life, even if we have not managed to become good before we die, God provides a time or a means (we don't know, and the Church doesn't define it) by which we may continue this journey, already solidly begun, after our earthly death.

This brings us to the second error for which Purgatory is a sound corrective, what I'm calling Pelagian deism. Sometimes people express this idea in which this life is construed as a kind of test. We have this time on earth, by which we are free to make choices that shape our final destiny in the life to come. This is true as far as it goes, but it often contains a very impoverished concept of salvation. God is not an impartial actor in this scenario! He doesn't set up this life and then leave us alone to choose either Heaven or hell. Against this view, I quote (as I often do) the beginning of Hilaire Belloc's Pelagian Drinking Song:

Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How, whether you went to heaven or hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.

Not at all. God chooses Heaven for all of us. It's not about whether we end up with more goodness and badness in the ledger by the time we die, but about how we find the humility to accept the grace of salvation. God wants to give all of us the infinite blessing of the beatific vision. He is, quite literally, dying to give us Heaven. The only way to go to hell is to obstinately refuse to accept the gift. God is so passionate about our salvation that, even if we have not succeeding in fully accepting the happiness and sanctity He wants to give us in this life, God provides a further purification after death in order to bring us to the destiny He desires for us.

So, just a we pray for each other to become saints in this life, we pray for the dead who continue--by the gentleness of God--on this same journey to the life of the saints in heaven.


Lee Gilbert said...

"Purgatory is an exceedingly positive and encouraging doctrine, and an expression of the near, but not quite overwhelming, goodness and gentleness of God."

This morning I said to my wife, "Well, today's the big day, and I mean BIG," meaning the election. And she said, "O, that's right," meaning All Soul's Day.

She is praying to get her loved ones out of Purgatory, whereas I am praying to get mine in.

Every day at Mass in the prayers for the faithful there are one, two, or three petitions for the Poor Souls in Purgatory who have no one to pray for them. To me it would make infinitely more sense to pray for the Poor Souls in Portland who have no one to pray for them, and whose arrival in Purgatory would be a very great surprise indeed to everyone, them especially.

It seems to me that concern for the poor souls is the Catholic version of evangelism, where the concern we should have for the lost (who are still walking around) is usurped by the denizens of Purgatory who have landed in a very happy place indeed and have comparatively little need for our prayers..

Brother Charles said...


You hit upon a good point and an interesting objection. Since purgatory has but one exit; that is to say that it is on the way to Heaven, why the big deal about praying for those who might find themselves there? Is it for their encouragement? To reduce their 'time,' whatever this could possibly mean? For their awareness of the goodness of God? It's a good question.

The reminder of the perhaps greater need to pray for the lost in this life is well-taken.

Greg said...

Br. Charles, a question regarding Franciscan theology...

Am I correct in assuming that Francis felt that even Satan would, in time, be saved/converted/transformed?

Or did he hold to a finality of hell?

Brother Charles said...


I'm not sure, or at least I'm not aware of, how to make an assumption of Francis on that sort of point.

ben in denver said...

Do you suppose there is a connection between the white vestments so common at funeral masses these days and the presumption of heaven?

It seems to me that black vestments make their own statement about the importance of prayer for the deceased.

Also, we should not forget that prayers for the conversion of unbelievers have their liturgical highpoint on Good Friday. The great evangelical mission of the Church is not forgotten in her liturgy. Furthermore, in the extraordinary form, having the gospel porclaimed to the "north" is a visible and prayerful reminder of our obligations to convert the pagans--even on All Souls Day.

Brother Charles said...

We just learned about the northward gospel in one of my classes! I hadn't known its significance before!